For many, summer in the Ocean State means getting out on the water. With long shorelines, a multitude of lakes and rivers, and a rich maritime history, Rhode Island offers numerous opportunities for boating, which can be great fun for the whole family.

By the numbers

Whether you’re sailing in the ocean, kayaking in the bay, or fishing on a lake, staying safe on the water always needs to be a top priority. The numbers speak for themselves; in 2016, there were 701 recreational boating fatalities in the U.S. Of those fatalities, 80 percent were drownings, and 83 percent of those people were not wearing a life preserver.

Most people in boating accidents drown when the vessel capsizes or they fall overboard. Most fatalities (80 percent) occur on small boats, near land. Excessive speed and alcohol use are also significant risk factors in both fatal and non-fatal accidents on the water.

Follow these tips to stay safe while boating this season.

Wear a life jacket.

  • Rhode Island law requires children under 13 to wear a life jacket at all times and that there be a life preserver for each passenger on board. But regardless of age, a life jacket is only useful if you’re wearing it. If your life vest is not on and you find yourself in water unexpectedly, it won’t do you any good.
  • Make sure your life jacket and those of your shipmates fit properly. Children’s life jackets need to fit snugly, otherwise they can ride up over the child’s head, failing to keep the child’s head above water.
  • Life jackets need to be easily accessible; don’t store them in a locker under the spare anchor.

If someone else falls out of a boat, act quickly.

  • Throw a floatation device to the person, even if it’s just a seat cushion. This gives them something to stay afloat and may also help mark their location.
  • Yell “man overboard” to alert others and designate a “spotter” to keep a continuous eye on the victim.
  • If their life is in danger and you have a VHF radio, make a mayday call on channel 16. If possible, have your location coordinates ready.
  • Turn the boat around, approach the victim slowly from downwind and throw a line, preferably one with a float on it.

If you fall out of a boat or your boat overturns, don’t panic.

  • If the water is cold, you’ll initially hyperventilate for one to two minutes. Concentrate on keeping your head above water during this time.  The hyperventilation will pass, and you should be able to swim, even in cold water, for at least 15 more minutes.
  • Don’t waste energy removing clothing or footwear. Clothing can provide warmth, and won’t drag you to the bottom.
  • If your boat capsizes, stay with the boat. It will provide floatation, and is easily spotted by rescuers

Get an updated marine weather forecast.

A disproportionate number of boating accidents occur in stormy, unsettled weather. Be sure to get an updated marine forecast before heading out on the water.

Don’t boat under the influence.

Like driving, Rhode Island law prohibits anyone with an alcohol level of .08 from operating a vessel. Alcohol is a factor in 15 percent of all boating accidents. When drunk, passengers are just as likely to fall overboard as the operator.

Take a boating safety course.

  • Seventy percent of boating accidents involve preventable human errors, such as operator inexperience, improper anchoring, and violation of navigation rules.
  • Anyone in Rhode Island born after 1985 is required to take a safe boating class if operating a vessel with more than 10 horsepower. Those operating a jet-ski are also required, regardless of age.
  • Boating safety courses are widely available in Rhode Island and include ones run by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, US Sailing, and BOATWISE. Many of the online courses are free!

For more information, visit these websites, and please be safe on the water!


Andrew Nathanson, MD, FACEP

Dr. Andrew Nathanson is an emergency medicine physician at Rhode Island Hospital and The Miriam Hospital and a clinical professor at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Dr. Nathanson also conducts research on watersports injuries with the Injury Prevention Center at Lifespan.